Thursday, May 29, 2014

Replacing "I Do" With "I'm Sorry"

A friend's divorce was finalized recently. After it became official, he wrote: "It [was] pretty anticlimactic, honestly." It reminded me that while religions have rituals for getting married, there's not as much available for getting divorced. But a few groups are trying to help marriages end with a sense of religious closure, as I wrote in 2003.

I've been to a lot of weddings in my life. But so far I've only been to one divorce ceremony.

It happened in 2002 when I was visiting a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Near the end of the service the pastor asked the congregation to stand to read a blessing of separation for two members whose marriage had come to an end.

During the brief ceremony, we read a litany that invoked God's blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was a sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.

Later, I was told that this couple had tried counselling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end everyone agreed that divorce was the best option. 

The ceremony was a way for everyone in the congregation to formally acknowledge the end of the former couple's marriage, and the beginning of their new lives as single individuals.

That Mennonite church is not unique. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian and Anglican churches also have offered blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are divorced. Reformed Judaism has also added a "ritual of release" to its list of services.

For some, any talk about blessing ceremonies for divorced people is tantamount to encouraging divorce itself. But none of these groups has abandoned their belief in life-long marriage. They are simply coming to terms with the reality that religious people get divorced, too.

Two proponents of divorce ceremonies are Phil and Barbara Penningroth, authors of the book A Healing Divorce. 

In it, they note that while faith groups have rituals such as christenings, weddings and funerals to mark a transition from one stage of life to another, there is nothing for couples whose marriages end.

"Whether one sees it (divorce) as a failure or as a sin, it is without question a major life transition for millions of couples and their children," they say.

For most couples who are divorcing, the end of the marriage is "handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts."

The Penningroths -- who themselves participated in a divorce ceremony to mark the end of their 25 years of marriage -- see divorce rituals as a way to replace the acrimony that often accompanies divorce.  

"Using ritual to facilitate the divorce process can heal hearts and transform lives," they say.

Divorce ceremonies vary. In one, couples repeat their vows, replacing the words, "I do" with "I'm sorry." 

In another, couples confess their failures to their former spouses, ask forgiveness and then release each other from their vows.

Divorce ceremonies can be done by one member of the couple, too. Two people I know invited friends and clergy to their homes to witness their transition to singlehood with prayers and blessings. One ceremony concluded with a friend symbolically removing her wedding ring.

One Canadian pastor who has officiated at a divorce ceremony is the Reverend Canon David Luxton of St. George's On-the-Hill Anglican Church in Islington, Ont.

"I was really glad I did it," he said, adding "it was wonderful to be able to provide a healing service for them, rather than having only a civil statement to mark the end of their marriage."

During the ceremony, Luxton led the couple's friends and family in a litany that said: "On behalf of the church which blessed your marriage, we now recognize the end of that marriage. We affirm you as single persons among us, and we pledge you our support as you continue to seek God's help and guidance for the new life you have undertaken in faith."

Faith groups should do whatever they can to help couples stay together. But if marriages begin with religious rituals, maybe they should end with them, too.

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